Five go paddling down the Severn
The River Severn is the longest river in Britain, 220 miles from its source, in the Cambrian Mountains, to the point it pours into the Bristol Channel. It gets wider and more industrial as it heads south, but the stretch between Bridgnorth in Shropshire and Bewdley in Worcestershire is quiet, rural and the perfect place for a leisurely canoe adventure in the autumn sunshine.
We meet Richard, from Canoe UK, at the riverside in Bridgnorth. The company offers guided and DIY trips along the Severn in Canadian-style canoes, where paddlers sit or kneel in an open boat around 10ft long and use a single-bladed paddle. The canoes are stable, roomy and dry, and can comfortably carry three adults. The river is novice-friendly, and Richard reassures us that it’s difficult to capsize these boats, even if you’re playing pirates and trying to sink your friends.
“If you capsize, don’t panic. The first thing you must do…” we lean in, eager for the life-saving knowledge, “… is try and stand up. The river’s pretty shallow – chances are you’ll be up to your knees and can walk to the bank.” The whole group bursts out laughing – this is going to be a fun day.
We’re kitted up with buoyancy aids as Richard talks us through the basic strokes to manoeuvre the canoe and which sides of the bridges we should aim for, then we’re launched on to the water. He’ll meet us at the lunch stop, a riverside pub six miles downstream. The water gleams, the arches of Bridgnorth’s picturesque bridge slip above us, and we’re off.
A few low-hanging trees, longrodded but friendly fishermen and the odd kamikaze duck are the only obstacles. This is Archers country, all lush fields, mature woodland and nestled villages with pretty churches, and four miles an hour is the ideal pace to enjoy it at.
In our boat, I’m paddling at the front, my husband, Joe, is in the back, and Harpo, our dog, is in the middle. In the other canoe are our friends Katy and Anna.
We’ve taken Harpo canoeing a number of times before, and although he’s expressed a few misgivings in the first five minutes, historically he’s quickly settled down and enjoyed the rest of the trip, watching the world float by. Today, unfortunately, he’s possessed by the urge to keep the gang together. He clearly considers the slow, steady waters of the Severn to be a foul torment that keeps pulling Katy and Anna out of his reach.
What starts off as a plaintive whimper crescendos to a full-on yowl as they paddle past. Joe manfully stops Harpo from throwing himself out of our boat towards them, for the first five times at least. But eventually, and inevitably, Harpo makes a dash for it, gets three paws outside the boat and lets his furry brown bulk do the rest. The canoe rocks wildly and stabilises, and we all pause to watch Harpo cutting through the water at a rate of knots. Thankfully he’s wearing a dog life jacket, so he’s a highly visible vivid yellow and remains safely buoyant. He noses towards the girls’ boat and then doggypaddles circles between the two canoes as we all drift downriver. Once he’s manhandled back into the canoe, we decide to maintain a dog-safe distance between the boats. It rather reduces the banter, but does restore a degree of tranquillity to the river.
The first unexpected delight of the day is lunch. You can either bring your own picnic or opt for The River & Rail pub at Hampton Loade. Recently reopened, the pub’s canoeist menu offers quick, tasty dishes cooked to perfection. We are expecting food that will fill the hole and gear us up for the afternoon’s paddling. After steak, bone marrow and fried onion sandwiches, and truffly mushroom soup with porcinistuffed bread rolls, we’re more inclined to loll in the sunshine than set to with our paddles.
The canoeing is all downstream, though, so we clamber back into our trusty vessels for the final five miles and let the current help us along. Just before we reach Arley village we’re rewarded with the magnificent sapphire company of a kingfisher, darting from perch to perch ahead of us.
At Arley we’re welcomed on to dry land by Richard and his legion of strong-armed, friendly helpers. We discuss our kingfisher spotting, and they tell us about the local otters.
We swap our paddles for bags of dry clothes and Richard points us in the direction of the post office, which sells fresh local ice cream (we recommend the Worcestershire plum and the mint choc chip), and the village pub. He then hands over train tickets and a timetable, and shows us where the railway runs.
And so the next phase of this delightful day begins. The rubbish part about most canoe trips is the method required to return to your start point. Often in the back of a damp minibus, you cover what took you a day to paddle in 20 minutes. But not at the Canoe UK set-up. Not only do you get more than 10 miles of verdant, rural river, you get to go home on a steam train on the award-winning Severn Valley heritage railway.
The station at Arley is chocolatebox perfect; the locomotive drivers wear red kerchiefs and coal-dusted caps, the station master has a hat, paunch and whistle just like the Fat Controller and when the train huffs in, every face on the platform is glowing with childish delight.
We clamber into a Thirties carriage, and snack on Anna’s home-made apple cake and tea. It’s a 40-minute ride back to Bridgnorth, through stunning countryside, just a little above river level. The perfect way to round off a day of river fun.
Never tie a dog inside a boat – if you capsize, it must be able to get clear and swim to safety.
If you spend time on or around water, consider a dog life jacket – most dogs are competent swimmers but cold, open water, unexpected immersion and currents pose asmuch risk to dogs as they do to people. The Ruffwear Float Coat is hard-wearing and is designed to give buoyancy without hindering movement. muddypaws.co.uk; 08453629663.
Aone-day canoe and steam train trip between Bridgnorth and Arley costs£32per adult,£18for under-18s, and includes equipment hire, safety briefing and canoeing tips, as well as the Severn Valley steam train fare. Minimumage is seven years old, and all participants must be able to swim 50m. Trips run until the end of October. Contact Gareth at Canoe UK; canoeuk. com; 07774907326.
The Severn Valley Railway steam trains run between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth throughout the year. For timetables andmore information, see svr.co.uk.
Formoreof the Telegraph’s UKbased Adventures on your Doorstep series, see telegraph.co.uk/travel
Messing about in boats: Mary-Ann, Joe and Harpo in their Canadian-style canoe, left; the Severn Valley Railway, above, leads back to Bridgnorth